The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Who, exactly, are the ‘Berniebros?’

Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders   attracts a huge crowd a rally at the Brothers Convention Center in Waterloo, Iowa. (Lucian Perkins for The Washington Post)

I am not a woman.

The lens through which I view gender issues is necessarily that of a man. My online experience is the same; I experience a different sort of negativity online than do my female colleagues and friends. The Internet is rife with negativity (to which I can certainly contribute), but the repercussions of that negativity are different for me than they might be for someone who is not male or not white or not straight.

Weirdly, it takes a bit to recognize that. It seems obvious to those who aren't male and straight and white that there is often a different way in which people experience the Internet, but it's not always obvious to us, in part because we interact with so many other like us. It's one part of the way that the umbrella of privilege keeps us dry.

On Sunday, Bill Clinton — himself white and male and straight — called out Internet attacks on his wife stemming from supporters of Bernie Sanders. Referring to the Nation's Joan Walsh, Clinton said that Walsh "and other people who have gone online to defend Hillary, to explain why they supported her, have been subject to vicious trolling and attacks that are literally too profane often — not to mention sexist — to repeat," according to reporting from CBS News.

This was a pointed reference to the group of supporters of Bernie Sanders commonly known as "Berniebros," in the evocative formulation coined by the Atlantic's Rob Meyer. "Berniebros," as a concept, refers to presumably young, presumably white and most-definitely male backers of Sanders who launch the sorts of attacks to which Bill Clinton was referring and the sorts of attacks that have become part of the everyday life of women online: harassing, offensive, vituperative.

On CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday, Sanders disavowed such behavior.

"Have you heard about this phenomenon, the Berniebro?" CNN's Jake Tapper asked.

"Yes, I have heard about it. It's disgusting," Sanders replied. "Look, we don't want that crap. We can — and we will do everything we can, and I think we have tried. Look, anybody who is supporting me, is doing sexist things is — we don't want them. I don't want them. That is not what this campaign is about."

It's clear that online harassment is a problem. What's not clear about the Berniebro phenomenon is where the overlap between the responses to this harassment and the politics of the moment begins and ends.

The tricky thing about social media is that it rewards two of the worst tendencies of human behavior: Groupthink and squeaky-wheelism. It's trivial to cocoon yourself in a community that shares your beliefs and attitudes and moral boundaries, which is part of the reason it's often hard to recognize how and where those beliefs and boundaries are at odds with the broader world. It's also the case that the Internet overloads our sense of scale. Dozens of people being vicious and cruel seems like a massive swarm of anger — but it's simply a few dozen jerks, brainless plankton in the ocean of the web.

Berniebros clearly do exist. It's hard not to assume that it also overlaps with Sanders's vehement support on the site Reddit, which is explicit in offering users small communities of like-minded individuals to join. The furious arguments rewarded in the comments of Reddit posts (which other Reddit users can vote up or down, Pavlov-style) often echo the arguments with which writers are bludgeoned on other social media outlets. Pockets of this behavior are obvious elsewhere on Reddit, too. While fans of many of the candidates paint the 2016 election in remarkably stark terms of doom and transcendence, fans of Sanders are very vocal about it — and that overlaps with an Internet culture that's broadly slow to keep young, angry men in check when they act out. With a culture that often fails when it tries to do so.

It is also the case that the fight over the Democratic nomination has split along several demographic lines, including gender. In the most recent national poll from Quinnipiac University, Sanders leads among men by 10 points, while Clinton leads by 10 among women. In the Iowa caucuses, the split was similar.

Which reinforces for the Clinton camp that gender can be a powerful rallying cry. Over the weekend, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright was criticized for saying that there's a special place in hell for women that don't help one another — a line for which she is famous enough that it once appeared on a Starbucks cup. It was an appeal that arrived at the same place as Bill Clinton's, despite coming from the opposite direction: Women must band together, as men try to keep Clinton down.

What's murky is the extent to which Berniebro-ism is muddled together with general opposition to Hillary Clinton — and the extent to which that opposition is itself gendered. In that same Quinnipiac poll, 64 percent of all men viewed Clinton unfavorably, to 31 percent who viewed her favorably. But women also viewed her more unfavorably than favorably, though by only a two-point margin. Americans have found plenty of reason to oppose Hillary Clinton's candidacy that's not related to gender, and to some extent Bill Clinton's highlighting of Berniebros is simply an attempt to rally more women to Clinton's side.

In 2008, when Hillary Clinton ran against Barack Obama, there were similar complaints. An article on by Rebecca Traister from April of that year was titled, "Hey, Obama boys: Back off already!" The Obama boys sound a lot like the Berniebros. "I was getting e-mails from men I didn’t know well who approached me as a go-to feminist to whom they could express their hatred of Hillary," Traister wrote, "and their anger at her staying in the race — an anger that seemed to build with every one of her victories."

That year, the gender split in the actual voting was less clear. In states with large black populations, Obama often won the vote among women. In whiter states, Clinton did. This year — with only one state under our belts — there's a different complication: age. Clinton lost Iowa men ages 18 to 29 by 70 points, according to entrance polls — and women in that age range by the same margin. (Our Scott Clement looked at age in Iowa last week.) In New Hampshire, polling has shown him blowing Clinton out among men — a 70-25 margin in one poll — while women are much closer.

This is what prompted feminist icon Gloria Steinem to suggest that young women were backing Sanders because that was "where the boys are" — a comment for which she subsequently apologized.

Berniebros may be one of Clinton's more effective arguments to rally her base, but Berniebros are not new to Bernie. This almost certainly small universe of Berniebros isn't Clinton's biggest electoral problem, but the phenomenon of people (young men) who feel as though they have the space to be cruel online are a problem, and a bigger one than the presidential nomination contest.

Solving that bigger problem, a problem often rooted in gender and privilege, starts with the understanding with which I began: Just because my fellow bros are rooting my behavior on doesn't mean that it's right.